WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Senate has voted to extend, rather than tweak, three surveillance powers that federal law enforcement officials use to fight terrorists, passing the bill back to an absent House and throwing the future of the authorities in doubt.
The 75-day extension pushes off the debate over the surveillance tools as Congress attempts to deal with the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. It is unclear whether the House will accept the temporary extension of the surveillance powers, which lapsed on Sunday.
The House last week passed a compromise bill negotiated by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy that would renew the authorities and impose new restrictions. President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell endorsed the measure, but longtime skeptics of the surveillance tools in the Senate blocked a quick passage.
The House legislation would update the three expiring surveillance provisions, including one that permits the FBI to obtain court orders to collect business records on subjects in national security investigations. Another, known as the “roving wiretap” provision, permits surveillance on subjects even after they’ve changed phones. The third allows agents to monitor subjects who don’t have ties to international terrorism organizations.
The legislation would scale back some current authorities, such as the government’s access to certain records. It would also attempt to put stronger checks on some surveillance measures and make the process more transparent.
The compromise reflects angst in both major political parties about the way the surveillance powers have been used, but also a reluctance to strip those powers from the government's arsenal. Republicans and Democrats in the House broadly agreed that they did not want civil liberties sacrificed in efforts to thwart terrorism and other crimes.
It is unclear whether the House will vote on the Senate extension, which would make no changes to the authorities during the 75 days. A Democratic aide said that House leadership was discussing how to move forward, as the House is on recess and has no set date for returning.
The Senate passed the extension by voice vote Monday after days of negotiations between McConnell and Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore. The chamber had originally been scheduled to take a procedural vote to move forward on the House legislation, a step that would have set up final passage for later in the week. It’s not clear whether McConnell had enough votes for the House bill to pass.
McConnell said Monday evening that the Senate would eventually consider the House bill and several amendments, conceding to the demands from the three senators. The amendments would impose restrictions beyond the House bill on the government’s ability to surveil and gather information on Americans.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., speaking on the floor for McConnell, objected to that same deal last week, saying the Senate should pass the House bill. But there appeared to be more urgency to put off the surveillance issue Monday as coronavirus cases spiked in the United States and the economic damage mounted.